Wilmington, North Carolina – There’s a wall at Hokkaido radio station FM G’Sky that’s lined with thousands of CDs. There, Japanese rocker Eikichi Yazawa sits next to U.K. pop icon George Michael and Canadian singer Joni Mitchell, a mix of the local and the international in the small rural town of Takikawa.
Located along the main artery from Sapporo to Asahikawa, Takikawa boasts a population of around 40,000. FM G’Sky’s studio sits right in the city center, behind a Tsutaya CD and DVD store and close to a Bikkuri Donkey steak joint. The three-room studio may be small, but it has an outsized mission: It hopes to provide its audience with an internationally minded source of information.
Normally, when you think of community radio you may think of hobbyists getting lucky with a formula for good chat shows or music playlists. FM G’Sky’s inception 20 years ago, however, was entirely calculated between a group of young business leaders and officials at City Hall.
“As the rural-urban disparity grew, the government rolled out some measures to narrow the gap and revitalize regional areas,” says Seisetsu Yamaguchi, who was on the original FM G’Sky committee and is now its manager and an on-air personality. “Community FM attracted local business leaders, as it played an important role in reinvigorating communities.”
So, a group in Takikawa began experimenting with broadcasts between July and November of 2000. They turned out to be a hit and, as a result, FM G’Sky was established a year later as the 148th local FM station in Japan, located on the dial at 77.9 MHz.
“The shows are all produced by volunteers,” Yamaguchi says, adding that “many other community FMs purchase radio shows from main media and productions to fill in openings in timetables.”
And those shows run the gamut. Hosts cover topics such as news, music, health and, most interestingly, cultural exchange.
Kazuaki Sato has been involved in FM G’Sky since its early days, and has sought to bring international flavor to every aspect of the project and, in turn, his community. This has included everything from English-conversation lessons to comedy shows with guests from abroad.
The station’s multicultural touches are thanks in large part to the existence of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, which brings young people from overseas into Japanese towns as assistant language teachers (ALTs) and coordinators for international relations (CIRs), the latter of which are often put to work in local government.
The city’s international division was included in the initial broadcasts during FM G’Sky’s experimental phase, and Sato was invited to participate by a CIR. He recalls being eager to highlight Takikawa’s international connections.
“I remember playing the guitar and singing ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ with him,” Sato says of the CIR. “That’s how I got to know some city officers.”
Following the show, he was asked to host a show of his own.
The international connections aren’t limited to the JET programme, the city has partnerships with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, student-exchange programs with countries like the United States, Sweden and Singapore, and an imported Halloween celebration that includes a haunted house. However, it’s the region’s robust JET community that provides a lot of the motivation.
Ryan Love is an American CIR who currently works in Takikawa. He also volunteers his time as host for “TIEA’s Room,” which airs at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Love covers topics of international significance, a recent show focused on how a school in Takikawa’s sister city of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, is dealing with reopening amid the pandemic. And the host alternates between Japanese and English during his broadcasts.
He says he enjoys interviewing ALTs working for JET on his show, as it’s “a chance for the listeners to learn not just about the outside world, but also to learn that we have these people living in our community.”
“One of the long-term benefits of these programs is that many people here are now used to interacting with people from all over the world,” Love adds.
Sato also sees the value that radio offers to listeners and show hosts when it comes to global awareness.
“I thought it would give me a great opportunity to share world news with people here,” he says. “Suppose someone says, ‘I have no interest in anything overseas and I just love Japanese traditional soba.’ I think it’s important to know that nearly 80% of soba is imported. The radio is a good chance to explain that we are all part of a closely woven network throughout the world.”
With protectionist stances increasing at an international level, local initiatives to increase intercultural cooperation have an important role to play.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, Japanese tend to favor global engagement. Of those surveyed, 58% believe engagement with the global economy benefits Japan, versus 44% of Americans. Another 59% believe Japan should help others around the world with their problems.
Radio is also a more accessible medium for the city’s elderly population to be involved. Fifty-five percent of Takikawa’s population is over the age of 50, while 35% is over 65.
Sato’s interest in cross-cultural issues comes, in part, from his experiences in the advertising industry some years ago. While working in Tokyo he had the opportunity to travel to places such as Germany, Egypt and Azerbaijan, and he believes radio is a great way to relay his experiences to those who live in less multiculturally diverse parts of the country.
“It’s a privilege to have my voice heard. The volunteers you meet at G’Sky are open-minded and eager to learn, and they are good enough to teach their own skills,” he says. “G’Sky helps people form attachments to the community. Observing young volunteers, I think G’Sky creates a passion for local activity for the listeners and volunteers.”
Sato adds that embracing cultural diversity can have great knock-on effects for the community.
“I would be delighted if local kids happen to listen to my show and learn it’s OK to be different,” he says. “It’s fun to meet different people from different cultures. It’s OK to disagree with someone who thinks differently as long as we can communicate. It’s not difficult. All you have to do is respect others. It’s good to know there are so many different ways to look at your life, different ways to make you happy. That’s what you can learn from the rest of the world.”
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